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Masks still optional at Salem schools for now

SALEM — If there’s evidence of COVID spreading in a school building, that’s the basis Superintendent Sean Kirkland said he’ll use to mandate masks.

At this time, he said he doesn’t see evidence of the virus spreading in classrooms, not to say that it can’t or won’t happen, so for now, he’s not mandating masks.

Could that change in a day or two or next week? If it does, he said the basis will be the spread and he’s got the backing of the school board to do it, along with school policy adopted last year. He also stressed any decision made will be revisited bi-weekly.

“We’re going to get through this,” Kirkland told the several people who attended Monday’s school board meeting and spoke out regarding masks.

The ten residents who spoke passionately addressed where they stood on the issue: five in favor of masks and five in favor of choice. Both Kirkland and the board thanked them for their input, with Kirkland saying he heard them and respects them.

“We really do appreciate you being here. We hear each and every one of you,” board President Brittany Maniscalco said.

Kirkland said he can make the decision on masks without board action based on the district policy regarding protective facial coverings during pandemic/epidemic events. The policy refers to times of elevated communicable disease community spread, saying the superintendent may activate the policy and require the wearing of masks.

During a special meeting prior to the regular meeting, Kirkland told board members he felt the policy gave him that authority without a vote. He doesn’t want anything to divide them, but said it’s getting to a point where the issue will be put on the board. This was his way of shouldering the burden, which he said he’s happy to do.

He pointed out that some districts around them have already enacted mask mandates or are considering them. Any judgment has to concern the safety of the kids. He has a concern about the number of kids quarantined because they’re not wearing a mask and get exposed to someone who tests positive. Currently there are 92 students quarantined. If that’s 10 days off, that’s 2,430 days of instruction lost.

Board member and former superintendent Dr. Joe Shivers said he was disappointed because during the last meeting, he said Kirkland asked everybody to mask up and that includes the board, but not everybody was wearing them. He said Kirkland doesn’t ask for much.

“Might work, can’t hurt, why not try,” Shivers said.

Board member Carol Hrvatin, who said COVID kicked her butt and made her really sick, said the board should seriously consider the requirement. She would rather be safe than sorry. Only she and Shivers wore masks out of the five board members.

Board member Dianna Barley said she’s on the fence, she understands the emotional side of having kids wearing masks all day, but also noted that the younger kids can’t get vaccinated. She said she’s not 100 percent against masks, telling Kirkland “I will support whatever you decide to do.”

During the regular board meeting, Kirkland talked about social media and some of the nasty emails he’s received, one referring to him as a murderer for not mandating masks. He said he isn’t going to respond to that.

But he did say both the people and the governor wanted kids back in the classroom this year and that’s what they’ve done and it’s the best place for them. He said the school district has not changed a single cleaning protocol since this all began, everything’s still being sanitized, including buses. Every faucet and toilet was changed out to touchless last year. Water bottle stations remain instead of water fountains. They still have temperature checking machines and there’s hand sanitizer everywhere.

He’s speaking all the time with the Salem City Health District and looking at their numbers. He heard a lot of statistics and numbers tossed around by the people who addressed the board, some incorrect regarding number of students. The district has 1,998 students, with 17 students actively positive for COVID at this time: six at the high school, six at the junior high, two at Reilly, two at Southeast and one at Buckeye.

Residents who spoke included Tammy Heffinger, Joey LaFleme, Bekka Russell, Michelle Bails, Stephanie Helmick, Tammy Pitts, Blake Veglia, Jaimee Santangelo, Rachael Booth and Gary Deland.

Both Russell and Bails, who asked the board to mandate masks before school started, citing health concerns for their immunocompromised children, both spoke in favor of masks again and said they pulled some of their kids out of the district due to the mask policy. Heffinger said St. Paul School, which is also in Salem, has a mask mandate and no COVID cases. LaFleme said science shows that masks work and she questioned how many students will it take to get sick before the district believes in the science. Deland said Salem’s not doing well according to the numbers, but his concern was the liability and the board’s fiduciary requirements. What if someone died and it could be shown the virus was contracted at the school. The policy would be looked at during a lawsuit.

On the other side, Helmick, Pitts, Santangelo and Booth all thanked Kirkland for this remarks, with Veglia, who’s a pediatric nurse, commenting that based on the science, the risk to kids is low and every parent has the right to mask their kids, if they want. They also referred to people going out to fairs, sporting events and everywhere else where no masks are required. They questioned whether masks actually stop the spread and talked about the emotional effect on their kids or grandkids from wearing masks.

mgreier@salemnews.net

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